[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
Raghuvendra “Bonnie” Singh, Lord of Dundlod, trotted out of his castle at the head of the procession. He was crowned with the saffron-coloured turban of the Rajput warrior and his ancestral sword hung at his side. He was mounted on his trumpeting Marwari stallion Gajraj – whose own noble lineage can be traced back as far as 10 generations. At his right hand rode the English ‘warrior princess,’ known in Rajasthan simply as Ghoravalli (The Horsewoman).
It was like a scene from The Man Who Would Be King and, watching from the battlements, I allowed myself a moment to fantasise that I was an English cavalry officer destined also to ride to glory under the Dundlod standard that reads: “Victory Follows Virtue”.
“How did you enjoy the canter this morning?” A voice at my shoulder brought me back to reality and I turned to see Bonnie’s father.
“Breathtaking,” I hedged. I was well aware that this veteran cavalryman and once captain of The Rajasthan Wanderers polo team was probably not ignorant of my lack of prospects as officer material for his household cavalry.
The warriors of the old Rajput caste were respected for their courage, their lust for conquest and their nobility… and they refined these qualities in their horses. There are stories of entire Rajput clans who rode to certain death in battle rather than retreat – and just as many tales of noble Marwari warhorses who galloped unwaveringly into an impenetrable barrage of enemy fire.
The Marwari was once as much an Indian icon as the one-horned rhinoceros and the Bengal tiger but, like them, it is now fighting for survival.
In 1982 when the producers of The Far Pavilions came to Dundlod they hired Bonnie Singh as coordinator. Afterwards he bought a dozen of the best horses that were used in the film and turned the family fort into a Heritage Hotel (www.dundlod.com) as the perfect base for horse safaris. Later he established Marwari Bloodlines with his partner Francesca Kelly (aka the English “warrior princess” Ghoravalli) to try to bring this magnificent breed back from the brink of extinction.
“Riding a Marwari is like looking at the world through the sights of a rifle,” my riding companion had said that morning as we rode out onto the Sheikhawati Plains. As an instructor in the Indian cavalry Colonel Sarpartap Singh was no stranger to either horses or rifles. But sitting astride a stamping, side-winding, snorting black mare by the name of Raat ki Rani (Queen of the Night), I had the feeling that I had somehow placed myself at the wrong end of the barrel.
According to ancient texts the Marwaris were bred “to lift the heart in battle and to please the eye”. Their owners trained them to gallop from a standing start, to pirouette on the spot at any pace and to collect on their haunches for close fighting. They were also well equipped for long and arduous desert campaigns: fine, silky coats kept them cool; long eyelashes protected them from sandstorms; and incredibly hard hooves withstood the sharp sun-baked rocks. They could survive great treks on scant water and little grazing and in Rajasthan, there are still people who measure distance by the ground that a good horse can cover in a single day.
We trotted through villages where young men paused in their endless games of cricket to wave and dark-eyed girls looked up from their laundry to smile bashfully. We cantered through flocks of posturing wild peacocks and herds of haughty camels. Once we galloped hard on the heels of a herd of nilgai antelope.
Raat ki Rani’s wonderful scimitar-shaped ears, curving inwards so that they almost met at the points, did indeed give an unusual perspective to the Indian acacia. But so too did her stomping hooves. The acceleration of an instinctive warhorse threatened to make me a permanent feature of the desert acacia should I relax my hold on the reins.
Since I was mounted upon a creature that would once have been considered of a loftier caste even than her Rajput riders, it was fitting that Raat ki Rani should be out to teach me some humility.
More information about Fort Dundlod can be found here and Delhi-based Expedition Tours Ltd (tel: +91 11-26136934 / email: email@example.com) can help you customise your trip to Rajasthan.